How, Though? is a column devoted to helping you manage all the daunting complications of being alive.
If you’re able to get pregnant, you may know what it’s like to be the only one in a partnership who's trying to prevent that. According to the Journal of Sex Research, “In the United States, responsibility for preventing pregnancy in heterosexual relationships disproportionately falls on women,” who are disproportionately tasked with its physical, financial, and emotional obligations.
Ironically, making contraception more accessible to women was a very deliberate move by revolutionary birth control activist Margaret Sanger, says Dr. Layne Craig, the author of When Sex Changed: Birth Control Politics and Literature Between the World Wars. During the early 1900s, condoms were the predominant form of contraception, when any was used at all. “Condoms are male-controlled, so [Sanger] had the sense that women didn’t have control over their fertility,” Dr. Craig tells me over the phone. Motivated by the prevalence of marital rape, Sanger wanted women to at least decide whether or not they got pregnant, if not when they had sex. (Unfortunately, she was also motivated by eugenics.) In 1916, Sanger opened up the first birth control clinic in the United States and began advocating for the use of diaphragms.
Sanger’s fight to make contraception a more female duty was effective: Over a century later, it remains exactly that. While that’s wonderful in the sense that it has given more people agency, maintaining a method of long-term contraception can be a lot of work.
This includes physical work, which can mean getting devices inserted, dealing with side effects, and more, and emotional work, like managing feelings and stressors associated with birth control. “There can be some emotional stress in trying a method of contraception, switching methods, et cetera,” says gynecologist Dr. Holly Bullock. “This could mean return trips to a healthcare practitioner’s office, phone calls or emails troubleshooting symptoms, or scrambling for refills on prescriptions for pills, patches, or rings.” All birth control methods come with their own set of mental stressors.
Of course, some people don’t want their partner’s help with birth control, and that’s totally fine! Otherwise, there are a number of things that people can do to handle contraception equitably with partners. (A quick note: The only form of contraception that protects against STIs is using condoms. If you’d like to learn more about STI prevention, please do so here.)
Taking a pill at the same time every day, changing a patch weekly, replacing a vaginal ring once a month, or getting a shot every 12 weeks may seem easy enough, but we’re all human, meaning we sometimes leave our birth control in the wrong bag or schedule shot appointments that conflict with mandatory work meetings. People with the ability to impregnate their partner can help by texting their partner reminders at the time they have to take their pill every day, or on the days they have to switch out their rings or patches. This goes for sending reminders about regular doctor’s appointments, too (for example, the contraceptive injection Depo-Provera requires getting a shot during a short window of time once every three months). Obviously, do this if and only if the text-receiving partner welcomes it! As with most parts of relationships, asking is key.
The person who can get pregnant often absorbs the full cost of contraception. If that sounds like you, don’t be shy to renegotiate that with your partner. These costs don’t only include the physical methods of contraception, but doctor’s appointments, tests, and products like tampons and heating pads needed to combat the side effects of some birth control methods. Outside of those kinds of upfront costs, if a person is taking time off of work for birth control–related reasons, their partner should recognize if this is causing them to lose money, and offer help accordingly. It adds up.
Helping with Appointments
Having both partners attend contraception-related doctor’s appointments can be beneficial in a few ways. Planned Parenthood recommends that patients getting IUDs inserted bring someone along, as people often feel faint during or after the procedure, for one medical example. Doctor’s appointments can be anxiety-inducing for some people—they might like to have a hand to hold. Hearing what a doctor has to say can also help a partner understand what’s going on with their person’s body because of their birth control.
Pragmatically speaking: Getting to and from appointments can be a hassle, especially when someone is getting an IUD or implant and may not be up for driving or walking after their procedure. Partners can offer to drive or coordinate rides for doctor’s appointments. Making these appointments also takes time and energy. With permission, partners can help alleviate this by calling to set up appointments.
Depending on the procedures and side effects involved in a method, birth control can sometimes be painful or uncomfortable. Side effects can include severe cramping, migraines, nausea, and breast tenderness. Whatever your shared contraceptive method, partners can help by making the person using birth control feel comfortable. That might mean preparing a heating pad, a cup of tea, and a new pair of fuzzy socks for your partner after they’ve gotten an IUD inserted, running some painkillers to their office during a migraine, or telling them a funny story to distract them while their implant is being inserted. Get creative! They will appreciate the effort.
Taking on Other Responsibilities
Given the possible physical effects mentioned above, people may need some extra help with certain non-BC tasks. As one partner recovers from their IUD insertion or is experiencing bad cramping during their placebo week on the pill, it might be helpful for the other to walk their dog for a few days or make grocery runs. Most important, partners who aren’t on birth control should talk to their partners about what they need during the less fun aspects of contraception (that, again, they’re taking to benefit both people in the relationship).
Knowing the Deal
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be solely up to the partner whose body bears the brunt of contraception to inform the one whose body doesn’t about how it works or how they can help with it. They’re doing enough work as it is! Partners who aren’t on contraception should do their own research on the birth control method their partner uses. Do they know what their partner has to do if they’re late to switch out a ring? If they miss a pill? How it might feel when their IUD will be inserted? Are they assuming their partner changes their patches/rings, takes their pill, or gets their shot perfectly on time?
Partners who recognize the work that’s being put into contraception—either by contributing to the work or showing their appreciation—can take pressure off of their significant other by making them feel supported. If your partner is taking on the full responsibility of birth control that you’re benefiting from, ask them how you can help so that they're not.